From experience to experience. Proclaiming Christ according to Joseph Ratzinger

Tuesday, 3 January 2023 mission   pope   catholic church   martyrs  

by Gianni Valente

Rome (Agenzia Fides) - "The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith". This was the title of the XIII General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, the last in which Benedict XVI took part as Pontiff. From the work of that ecclesial assembly, reflections and points of view were later disseminated in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, the most important magisterial document of Pope Francis.
The most intense and passionate thread that runs through the pontificate of Pope Francis and that of his predecessor is that of the mission and apostolic solicitude in the proclamation of the Gospel.

In 2011, the "new evangelization" had been at the center of the annual meeting of the Ratzingerian Schülerkreis, the cenacle of former students who at that time met every year at Castel Gandolfo to reflect together in a closed-door seminar on a specific theme, and reunite with their former professor for the occasion.
Throughout his spiritual and ecclesial journey, the future Pontiff had expressed his vision of the new missionary dynamism that the Church is called to live in the present time, marked by profound processes of de-Christianization in lands of ancient Christian tradition. He had also done so when, as Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he had delivered a long and articulate report on December 10 of the year 2000, speaking at the Conference of Catechists and Religion Teachers promoted in Rome by the Congregation for the Clergy. This document contains impressive and fruitful insights that serve to recognize the source of all mission and apostolic work, and the incomparable features that characterize its flourishing in the world, at the present time.

On that occasion, Cardinal Ratzinger started from the evangelical parable of the Kingdom of God, compared by Jesus to the mustard seed, which "is the smallest of all seeds but, once it has grown, it is bigger than the other plants in the garden and it becomes a tree, so much so that the birds of the sky come to make their nests in its branches". When speaking of the "new evangelization" in contexts where Christian memory has faded - the future Pope Benedict XVI underlined - it is necessary above all to avoid "the temptation of impatience, the temptation to immediately seek great successes, to seek large numbers". This, according to Ratzinger, "is not God's method", for which "the parable of the mustard seed always applies". The new evangelization "cannot mean: immediately attracting with new and more refined methods the great masses who have distanced themselves from the Church". The Church's own history teaches that "great things always begin with small grains and mass movements are always ephemeral".

The dynamics of Christian witness - the Bavarian Prefect-theologian suggested at the time - is recognizable because it only has as a term of comparison the action of God in the history of salvation: "Not because you are great I have chosen you, on the contrary - you are the smallest of peoples; I have chosen you because I love you...", God says to the people of Israel in the Old Testament, and thus expresses the fundamental paradox of the history of salvation". God "does not count with large numbers; external power is not the sign of his presence. Most of Jesus' parables indicate this structure of divine action and thus respond to the concerns of the disciples, who expected far more successes and signs from the Messiah - successes of the type offered by Satan to the Lord".

Even the spread of Christianity in the apostolic era was traced by Ratzinger to the evangelical parables of humility: "Certainly, Paul had the impression at the end of his life of having carried the Gospel to the ends of the earth, but the Christians were small communities scattered around the world, insignificant by world standards. In reality they were the seed that penetrated the mass from within and carried within themselves the future of the world. In reality they were the seed that penetrated the mass from within and carried within themselves the future of the world".

It is not a question of "widening the spaces" of the Church in the world. Ratzinger pointed out in his report to the catechists: "We do not seek to be heard, we do not want to increase the power and extension of our institutions, but rather we want to serve the good of people and humanity by giving space to the One who is Life. This expropriation of one's person, offering it to Christ for the salvation of men, is the fundamental condition of the true commitment for the Gospel".

The references then proposed by Ratzinger regarding the proper nature of the apostolic mission were not inspired by opportunistic tactics, but by the necessary conformation of all apostolic activity with the dynamics and mystery of the incarnation of Christ. A self-referential Church that only the future Successor of Peter suggested it would be an instrument of confusion and counter-witness, because "the sign of the Antichrist is to speak in his own name", while "the sign of the Son is his communion with the Father". Ratzinger was already pronouncing illuminating words at that time about the presumption of trusting in a "triumphalistic" way in the new communication and marketing strategies: "All reasonable and morally acceptable methods must be studied – he said at that time-. It is a duty to take advantage of these possibilities of communication. But words and all the art of communication cannot win the human person to that depth, to which the Gospel must reach. (…). We cannot win over human beings. We must win them from God for God's sake".

The conversion of hearts is the work of Christ's operating grace. And it is mysteriously inspired by the mystery of his Passion. In another extraordinary passage, the future Pontiff insinuated with definitive words the link that unites the martyrdom and missionary features of the Church's path throughout history. "Jesus" said Joseph Ratzinger then "did not redeem the world with beautiful words, but with his suffering and his death. This passion of his is the inexhaustible source of life for the world; passion gives strength to his word". In the same way, for Saint Paul, the first great “missionary”, "the success of his mission was not the result of great rhetoric or pastoral prudence; his fecundity was linked to suffering, to communion in passion with Christ. The witnesses are those who “complete” what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ (Col 1:24). In all ages of history, Tertullian's words have always come true: The blood of martyrs is a seed. Saint Augustine says the same thing in a very beautiful way, interpreting the Gospel of John, in the passage in which the prophecy of Peter's martyrdom and the mandate to shepherd, that is, the institution of his primacy, are closely related". For all these reasons, "we cannot give life to others without giving our own life. The process of expropriation indicated above is the concrete form (expressed in many different forms) of giving one's life. And let us think about the word of the Savior: "... whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it...".

On another occasion, preaching the spiritual exercises to the priests of Communion and Liberation in 1986, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had already re-proposed the attraction of grace, brought about by Christ himself, as the source of all authentic evangelizing dynamics.
On that occasion, Ratzinger recalled that "the primitive Church, after the end of the apostolic period, developed relatively little missionary activity as a Church, it did not have its own strategy for announcing the faith to the pagans and, nevertheless, its time became the period of the greatest missionary success. The conversion of the ancient world - Ratzinger stressed - was not the result of a planned ecclesial activity, but the fruit of the verification of the faith, a verification that became visible in the life of Christians and in the community of the Church. The concrete invitation from experience to experience and was nothing more, humanly speaking, the missionary force of the primitive Church. On the contrary, the apostasy of the modern era is based on the lack of verification of faith in the lives of Christians (...) the new evangelization, which we so badly need, is not achieved with cleverly elaborated theories: catastrophic failure of modern catechesis is all too evident. Only the intertwining of a truth in itself and the guarantee in life of this truth can make that evidence of faith awaited by the human heart shine; Only through this door does the Holy Spirit enter the world". (Agenzia Fides, 3/1/2023)